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An Exhilaration
of Wings
Jeffrey Hall

An Exhilaration of Wings: the literature of birdwatching
edited and with an introduction by Jen Hill
Viking Press, New York. $25.95

Jen Hill, a doctoral candidate at Cornell, has collected quotations on birds and bird-study from the 1800's and early 1900's. Some come from Muir, Burroughs, Thoreau, or Audubon. She found others from obscure or forgotten writers such as Lynds Jones, Olive Thorne Miller, and Irene Grosvenor Wheelock. Most of the selections are from one-third of a page to a whole page in length.

Like any collection of this type, the interest and literary merit of the quotations varies widely. Nature writing in the nineteenth century was a very different thing than it is now, and some of the writings might seem quaint to today's reader. However, the very next selection may strike the reader as "charming" rather than "precious." I was delighted by Mary Austin's description of life in the desert-her reactions very much mirrored my own when I first ventured into Saguaro National Monument. Theodore S. Van Dyke's description of a roadrunner as looking "much like a cross between a hawk and a hernshaw (heron)" is picturesque, amusing, and oddly accurate.

A poignant note is struck by the frequency of our forebears' comments on the abundance and prevalence of many birds that we now, despite being equipped with superior optics, field guides, and improved transportation, must labor to find. Englishman John Woods lived two years on the Illinois frontier in 1822, and took our "paroquets" for granted as members of our avifauna. Today, of course, the Carolina parakeet is long extinct.

Few readers will sit down and read this book through, but there is much of interest in it. As something to read when you only want a few minutes of diversion -- perhaps before dropping off to sleep -- it provides vignettes of insight into birds as they were viewed in the last century and into the people doing the viewing. I particularly appreciated the inclusion of an index, which makes it possible to track down that quotation you enjoyed about the peregrine or the catbird, but can't quite recall.

Jeffrey Hall

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Last revision: Tuesday, December 28, 1999 - 04:41 PM